EXPERT SESSIONS AND ADVICE FROM QUALIFIED AND EXPERIENCED GRASSROOTS RUGBY COACHES

Don’t let systems stifle your youngsters’ attacking flair

These days, we, as coaches seem to be stifling attacking flair as we grow an ever-increasing fascination with attacking systems, structures and the latest trend: ‘shape.’ Could this infatuation be creating a generation of robots who know where to stand, but struggle to play the game? Let’s aim to strike the balance in kids’ rugby.

Unstructured rugby is identified as a point of difference between New Zealand teams and many other parts of the world. They have the ability to create stuff out of nothing.

This is seemingly linked to how Kiwi kids build their rugby instincts by playing with their siblings, neighbours and friends in school grounds and backyards. But is this still the case in the land that’s produced the likes of Beauden Barrett and Sonny Bill Williams?

When did learning the structure, system or shape become more important than learning the game? Maybe we should blame Eddie Jones and the ACT Brumbies.

The 2001 Super 12 winning ACT Brumbies, coached by Eddie Jones, was praised for innovation by bringing in attacking systems that mapped out three, four, five phases or more, where each player knew where they needed to be. Because of their success, competing teams started replicating the Brumbies style by having team structures and systems.

And, over time, shapes such as 1-3-3-1 and 2-4-2 developed to help forwards know where to stand so they could get a perceived attacking advantage. But at the same time, defences improved and attacking shapes became less fruitful, so now professional coaches of this modern era are working out how to break down defences, often through unstructured play. Are we coming full circle?

Now, as community rugby coaches adopt trends from the professional game, attacking structures, systems and shape have been implemented across the world and with kids sometimes as young as 8! Surely not? 

But should kids be taught attacking structures, systems and shapes? We’re not sure, but here are a few considerations on why you might spend less time on “structure”.

1. SET STRUCTURES CAN STIFLE INNOVATION AND CREATIVITY

Coaches applying set structures can often resort to unopposed run-throughs where the team rehearses play after play in order to get it right. 

The kids are often restricted to certain parts of the field, where success looks like being in the right place at the right time and then told off for leaving their zone.

Kids’ teams change every year and players grow and develop at different rates. Learning a structure stifles a wider game understanding that the players need when they move onto the next level or play in different teams with different players.

Yes, the players need to be aware of where to stand to fill the field and create space. However, they must learn the attacking principles too.

2. THE MATCH NEVER GOES TO PERFECTLY TO PLAN 

An analyst for a professional provincial team was asked to find footage of the 2-4-2 system being applied (to the script) in a match. He trawled through 10 round-robin matches to find ONE example through the entire season. 

So after hours spent perfecting the system, they only executed it once in an entire season. Why? Because their opposition does everything in their power to disrupt the system!

For kids, the randomness of the opposition, referee and weather add to the chaos. 

3. TEAMS GET MORE BALL FROM RANDOM SITUATIONS

56% of possession in adult rugby will come from unstructured/random ball sources such as kicks, turnovers, and opposition mistakes. In kids’ rugby, according to research to be published soon, it is closer to 75%, so wouldn’t it make sense to practise unstructured play? In other words, not start from a set-piece situation.

How many scrums and lineouts do you have in an average kids’ game? In the research, yet to be published, on average it was only five lineouts and twelve scrums. Therefore there’s more chance of receiving the ball from a normal ruck turnover or from a dropped pass. 

It’s also worth noting that ball-in-play time is 65% in kids’ rugby to 45% in adult rugby. With the players I’m coaching games for U9s, we train with ball-in-play and then integrate the set-pieces when they arise. For us, it’s mostly kick-offs. But, you can just have a scrum when a scrum arises. They are just game-starters.

4. ATTACKING STRUCTURES HELPS THE DEFENCE

There is a perceived benefit that an attacking system will help the attack as they are more likely to know where the ball is going to go. 

But doesn’t this also help the defensive team? A more intuitive team will keep the defence guessing where the ball’s going next.

In the end, I believe we should concentrate our time in training on the attacking principles such as filling the field, moving the ball to space, go forward, support rather than perfecting a structure, system or shape.

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